Robert Gabriel Mugabe gambled and lost. Those who think the former Zimbabwean president got a good deal in the hands of the military because he can now live in the laps of luxury for the rest of his life, miss the point. Did the man live a life of hard scrabble in a hovel with a leaking roof in the poor suburbs of Harare all the time he was Mugabe and he was Zimbabwe? No, sir. He lived in the luxurious laps of luxury for all of his 37 years in power at the expense of the country. He, certainly, has a luxurious personal residence but there is no way its luxury could beat that of the presidential palace, his only home for 37 years. It was more than a mere residence. It was power and the seat of unquestionable power.
No one is crazy about the gilded cage to which fate and his unbridled ambition has now sentenced Mugabe. It is not the life of luxury the former fighter for the independence of his country would have wished for himself this late in life. He has seen it all and lived it all. There is no doubting this: he never dreamed of living a private life as ex-president. He could have paid any price to the gods to let that cup pass him by. Mugabe’s only love in life is power, naked, raw, unchallenged power and the full and unfettered exercise thereof. There is a hollow ring to his new life in the laps of stupendous luxury. The sudden transformation of a powerful man into a powerless man tells you the gods too can laugh. In his going, the league of African big men has lost one of its remarkable members.
This is not really about Mugabe. Far be it from me to laugh at a man whose remarkable plans for holding on to the levers of power in life and death suddenly went the way of dishonest mortal plans. This is about some of the very remarkable leaders that our continent has produced since, to quote the late British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, the wind of change blew out the colonialists and brought in the sons of the soil as untested leaders of their various countries. It is about the meaning and the fate of democracy in Africa and what the longish one-man rule in many a pretended democratic nation on the continent portends for the present and the future of this admittedly difficult form of government.
We must first of all admit that thanks to those remarkable leaders, Africa emerged from the dark into the light. It is the dark continent no more. Africa has produced a cast of remarkable leaders in various shapes and forms. We have had serious-minded men who treated political power, not as a master but as a servant in the service of doing well by the country and its people. Among such few men were the late Tanzanian president, Julius Nyerere, and the late President Nelson Mandela of South Africa.
We have had men who, lost in the thickets of the idioms of power and its nuances, did the next best thing: they strutted the local and the international stage like the inebriated colossus they truly were. You may wish to number among such men Field Marshal Idi Amin Dada of Uganda and the former president of The Gambia, Yahya Jammeh, who decked himself with the longest title in the world. He was addressed as His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr Yahya Abdul-Aziz Jemus Junkun Jammeh Babil Mansa. I don’t think he still answers this remarkable title in his lonely home in exile.
We have had men who failed to master power and became, in a remarkable twist of irony, its servants. You may wish to number the late Commander General Doe of Liberia among such men.
We have had men who used power as a malleable clay in their hands and tried to shape it in their own image. President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasago of Equatorial Guinea easily comes to mind.
We have had men who, impatient with and intolerant of the tenets of democracy, imposed a strange form of government on their countries. We may, for want of a better expression, call it democratic-dictatorship. Nearly all African leaders have been guilty of this in different ways.
We have had men who treated political power as pure theatre to service their megalomania. Here, the late Jean-Bedel Bokassa of Central African Republic sticks out like a sore thumb. Not satisfied with being the absolute ruler as president of his country, he crowned himself emperor of the Central African Empire. His golden crown and his golden throne cost his impoverished country more than two years of its annual income. There is some madness sure in the absolute exercise of absolute political power.
The mockery of democracy is at the heart of most of the political, economic and social problems in all the African countries. Democracy is but a sham if it is not participatory because then power does not belong to the people; it belongs to the stakeholders in all the political parties. I still do not know what stake they are holding exclusively. Excuse my ignorance.
Democracy has had a difficult time on the continent. After more than two generations of leadership by the sons of the soil we still miss the point about what democracy is all about. We still largely see it, not as a form of government but more importantly as a means of accumulating and exercising personal power in the interest of the few and at the expense of the many. This, I am afraid, is not about to change soon on the continent.
For evidence of that look no further than the members of the league of African big men, each of whom has locked up democracy in his country and misplaced the key. The league parades President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasago of Equatorial Guinea. He is the world’s longest non-royal ruler with 38 years under his belt. Last year, he appointed his son, Teodoro Obiang Mangue, as prime minister in an obvious succession plan that would keep power in the country in his family. He has traditionally won 97 per cent of the votes in all presidential elections except the last one in 2016. He graciously accepted a lower percentage of 93.3 per cent. No, he is not a dinosaur. He is only 74 years old.
President Eduardo dos Santos of Angola has also been in power since 1979. He has no intentions of letting go. After all, he is only 74. If Mugabe could hold on to 93, so could he.
At 71, by his own declaration of age, because he confessed that “my parents were illiterate and so did not know the date,” President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda is one of the youngest in the league of the African big men. He has been in power for only 30 years.
President Paul Biya of Cameroun is 85 years old. He has been in power since 1982 and is, in fact, rated as the world’s ninth longest non-royal ruler. He has won all his elections and so, he is a democrat ruling by the consent of the people, right? I wish I knew.
In power for only 17 years, President Paul Kagame of Rwanda is at the bottom of the league. All these men and others not mentioned here are the pock-marked faces of the new form of government peculiar to Africa: democratic-dictatorship. The peoples of Africa did not bargain for this form of government that is neither of the people, by the people nor for the people. The relative calm in these countries of long-reigning dictators should not make us forget that dictatorship survives because it is oppressive, repressive and intolerant of freedom of speech or dissent. The disaster comes when it ends and the oppressive chains are removed. That is when the tribes find their voices. You don’t have to sit on the edge of your chair. Just remember that cookies always crumble. Africa is a tough and nutrient-deficient soil in which to grow democracy.